A new study, released as a preprint on the medRxiv * server, reports the effects of such limited interactions on the emotional health of very young children, as reported by closely involved parents. Study: Children’s emotional wellbeing during spring 2020 COVID-19 restrictions: a qualitative study with parents of young children in England. Image Credit: altafulla / Shutterstock Background
During the first wave of COVID-19 in England, only about 5% of children attended either school or childcare, with the number rising in June 2020. However, the number was still far from normal.
Earlier studies showed that teachers in schools were worried about the potential adverse impact of such isolation on very young learners, starting school for the first time. Would they be able to communicate, develop language skills, and learn to read and write, as earlier generations of children had? Would they play well with others, form teams and develop strong relationships with those other than their primary caregivers?
The context of the postulated deprivation of these socially learned skills in preschool children is also important, since parents are often stressed out with the loss of employment, childcare and opportunities for socialization following the pandemic-related restrictions. Stress in the parents is linked to poor parenting and a decreased quality of family life, and most importantly, less responsive care of their children, which in turn impacts the child’s development.
Some studies reported a higher persistence of emotional and behavioral problems with children older than two years in the pandemic period, though the extent to which this is simply due to greater opportunities to observe the children. How was the study done?
The current paper reports a more detailed study of these issues and the coping measures adopted by these families. The aim is to understand these experiences so as to offer proper support and guide appropriate decisions in future pandemics.
Using the nurturing lens to look at the child-parent relationship in this pandemic, the researchers focused on the formation of attachment between the children and other people other than the primary caregivers. Nurturing is based on attachment theory that considers the relationship between child and primary caregiver as the foundation of a warm and responsive relationship with others thereafter. Such relationships are considered to be essential to providing support to children in difficult times.
Most participants were mothers, and at least one parent was at home without work during the lockdown period. What were the findings?
With the onset of these restrictions, preschool children were faced with not being able to go out to play or to do any public activity, but without the means of understanding why.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, the fight for racial justice, and a divisive American election have left many people feeling stressed and uncertain. While this may be an appropriate reaction to what is happening, the fact that we all have powerful inner resources called character strengths can help us cope with adversity. Thus, strengths can be a source of hope.
Character strengths are ways of thinking and behaving that come naturally to people. Researchers have identified twenty-four strengths such as Social Intelligence, Bravery, Curiosity, and Honesty that represent the best human qualities and are valued across cultures and time. When people use their strengths, they feel energized, competent, and in tune with their values. Using character strengths can expand their ability to think and act in ways that buffer them from stress.
One way that character strengths might support coping is by helping people reframe stress. According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, the way people think about stress influences how it impacts their well-being. Stress can make people believe that there is a threat that they cannot handle. However, McGonigal suggests that if people instead think about stress as a motivating force that helps them protect the things they care about, then it can “awaken core human strengths involving courage, connection, and growth.”
But how do we do that? First, we can become more aware of our beliefs about stress by using Self-regulation and Curiosity to practice mindfulness. When people are mindful, they observe their emotions without judgment. For instance, instead of saying, “I am so stressed!” a person might say, “I am noticing that I am so stressed.” This tiny change puts a little bit of distance between the person and the feeling. It loosens the grip of stress.
One way to cultivate mindfulness is to practice a mindful pause. According to Ryan Niemiec, this entails pausing to feel your in-breath and out-breath for 10-15 seconds. Then we can ask ourselves, “Which of my character strengths will I bring forward right now?” We could practice taking a mindful pause every time we hear a candidate’s name mentioned.
Choose a New Response
Once we have created mindful space between ourselves and stress, we can use Judgment and Perspective to check our beliefs for accuracy. We could ask ourselves, “Is there really a threat that I can’t handle?” From that vantage point, we can more easily choose a healthy response. McGonigal says that in addition to the well-known fight, flight, or freeze responses to perceived threat, people can also tap into the rise to the challenge response by marshaling resources to take action. Other healthy responses include the bigger than self response in which we connect with others for social support and the look for what I can learn response that facilitates growth.
Character strengths can then provide us with tools to respond. Let’s use the 6 categories of strengths shown in the figure above. The Courage strengths might be useful for the rise to the challenge approach. The Wisdom strengths might help us reappraise and evaluate situations for the look for what I can learn response. The Humanity and Justice strengths might help us connect with others in the bigger than self response. The Transcendence strengths could help us connect with something bigger than self and tap into the protective benefits of positive emotions. The Temperance strengths might help us avoid or de-escalate conflict and stressful situations.
Support values Another way to mitigate stress is to use character strengths to take meaningful action in support of personal values. If we are stressed out about the election, it may bring us a sense of comfort and control to consider that no matter what happens on November 3rd, no one can take away our ability to support the things that matter to us. For instance, if we value social justice, we could use our strengths of Kindness, Teamwork, and Social Intelligence to volunteer for nonprofit organizations. We could use Love of Learning and Perspective to explore how others have used Justice or Bravery to make changes in the past. We could use Creativity to create a piece of art that shines a light on an issue.
I invite us all to take the time to consider how we can use our strengths to navigate the next few weeks and months. A great source of ideas is the recent paper by licensed clinical psychologist Tayyab Rashid and researcher Robert McGrath offering more than 100 suggestions for ways to use character strengths to cope during the pandemic.
Perhaps by employing our strengths for coping and advocacy, we might uncover common values with others that help us transcend political and physical barriers and work together towards the future we would like to see.
Gustems-Carnicer, J., & Calderón, C. (2016). Virtues and character strengths related to approach coping strategies of college students. Social Psychology of Education, 19(1), 77-95. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-015-9305-y
Niemiec, R.M. Six functions of character strengths for thriving at times of adversity and opportunity: A theoretical perspective. Applied Research Quality Life 15, 551–572 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-018-9692-2. Abstract.